How coronavirus has stolen my grief

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How coronavirus has stolen my grief

Saying Kaddish with others gave Marc Shoffman a communal hug, but mourners have now lost this comfort because virtual minyans are not allowed

Marc Shoffman is a freelance journalist

Marc Shoffman with his late father. ‘Surely something has to be done to help me grieve?"
Marc Shoffman with his late father. ‘Surely something has to be done to help me grieve?"

 Five months ago I became part of an exclusive synagogue grouping when my dad died suddenly from a heart condition after 15 years of battling Parkinson’s.

Our group doesn’t have badges but are represented by the jagged edges that have been left on our hearts.

We are mourners and as part of this club I have been trying my best to say Kaddish three times a day and lead services as the Jewish grieving process suggests.

My dad was in no way religious. He had no issues working on Saturdays and wasn’t too worried about the odd full English breakfast, so the idea of me going to synagogue in his memory regularly probably would have done little to make him look up from his bacon sandwich.

But as a rabbi once said to me after I stumbled through the Mourner’s Kaddish the first time on my own during Minchah, this isn’t just for him, it is for me.

It is the community rallying round to recognise my loss. The acknowledgment that a space has been left in my life and an opportunity to stop and take time to remember him as life continues around me.

It is a communal hug and a comfort blanket that has now been ripped away by the coronavirus.

Marc Shoffman with sister Amanda, brother Jason and their dad, Elan

The outbreak has rightly caused synagogues to shut, but at the same time that has held up the grieving process for me and many others. Life in lockdown limits the outlets for my grief.

There are plenty of happy reminders of Dad around my home. The memories of Seder night and other family gatherings, the photos of him, his scarf that I took from his old flat. But the routine of sharing my grief has gone. I was in for the long haul, committed to taking the stipulated 12 months after a parent’s death to say Kaddish as part of managing my own mourning process.

But Orthodox rules stipulate that Kaddish cannot be said unless you are in the presence of 10 men. This has to be done physically so there is no option of logging in to Skype, Zoom or Houseparty.

Even the Chief Rabbi can’t say Kaddish for his father who passed away last year.

He has been learning three times a day instead and this has been offered as an alternative for the rest of the community.

Marc and his dad Irving

This is seen as good for the soul of the departed and provides spiritual nourishment, but where is the support for me?

Other denominations are offering alternative approaches. I could log into a Reform synagogue livestream but that is not my community. It would be like me going to have dinner with someone else’s wife because mine is in isolation or social distancing.

There are none of the recognisable faces that I see and share my grief with on a daily or weekly basis. Learning Mishna can’t replace the nod from community members who know you have forgotten whether you are supposed to be reciting the Mourner’s or Rabbi’s Kaddish. It can’t replace the various pronunciation and tunes each individual brings to their oration. It can’t replace the uplift as the community responds in unison to your prayer.

There has been recognition of the unprecedented times we are living in by the London Beth Din when it comes to kashrut rules for Pesach. There is an opportunity for the United Synagogue to follow this precedent and relax its rules to allow a minyan to be formed virtually. This would help people like me recite these important and comforting prayers.

I am, in some ways, lucky that my dad died before the coronavirus struck. My brother, sister and I were able to attend his funeral.

He is at peace and hopefully his soul is elevating, but burying someone is just the start. You need to be able to grieve for them too.




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